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Interview: The unseen arts and sanity-twisting rituals behind Cultist Simulator

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Cultist Simulator is a digital card game of ‘apocalypse and yearning’ from London-based indie studio, Weather Factory.

This alchemic tale of temptation, ritual, and the occult is created by Alexis Kennedy, founder of Failbetter Games and the creative force behind Fallen London and Sunless Sea. Having departed Failbetter in 2016, Kennedy freelanced on projects including DLC for Stellaris – and a BioWare title that is certainly not Dragon Age-related – before setting up Weather Factory.

He was then joined by Failbetter alumnus, Lottie Bevan, to work on Cultist Simulator, a narrative digital card game that was successfully crowdfunded before finding a publisher in Humble.

We spoke to Kennedy and Bevan at this year’s Game Developers Conference as development on Cultist Simulator was nearing completion.

Cultist Simulator is a game that delivers it’s discomforting pleasures through the striking iconography of its cards, in the rich grain of its text, and in the dark, curious corners of the player’s mind. Those familiar with Failbetter’s games will immediately detect Kennedy’s hand it its rich prose. However, the use of cards is a bold new direction, and one that was not part of the game’s early prototype.

Cultist Simulator’s pleasure is the gradual mastery of an interlocking system of concepts interacting with each other,” says Kennedy. “You can prove that out with a basic Javascript grey box prototype, and it would work, but it doesn’t have much visual appeal. That’s why I brought in Martin Nerurkar, who took the way I wanted to deal with  concepts, and suggested moving from a script UI to this larger thing where you manipulate cards on a table.”

For a studio of Weather Factory’s size, there were economic and production reasons, as well as creative reasons, for taking this this path.

“The practical reason is to keep budgets low without compromising quality. Cards allow you to turn out a very large number of elegant looking, minimal art pieces, and the game ends up looking great,” Kennedy explains. “The highfalutin creative reason is that I’m a very verbal thinker, and one of the things Lottie brings to the studio is a highly developed visual sense. I cannot put colours together on a page.” he admits.

Bevan’s input was essential in ensuring there was a visual coherence to Cultist Simulator, and although its gameplay is not completely bound to relationships between colours, Bevan explains there is a system in play.

“One of things Alexis is good at is developing complicated lore systems that you can peel back. This works brilliantly with the sense of discovering occults and truths, and I wanted to use colour to help that. We’ve got a fairly robust colour-code system through the game, although we’ve deliberately not stuck to it all the time because I didn’t want it to be a case of ‘blue goes with the blue’,” Bevan says.

“I hope that in the UI elements there is a reason that things are coloured the way they are, and I hope that it helps players connect the right cards and follow the right path in a way that is not obstructive or leading, or that takes away from the fun of experimentation.”

If iconography helps the player understand what each card does, it’s the written word that paints the game’s true picture. Each sentence drips with atmosphere, intrigue, pleasure, and threat. There’s an economy here, but no shortage of flavour and detail.

“Alexis’s prose is particularly piquant when taken in small doses,” says Bevan. “I’ve lamented the fact that his writing is not open to more people outside of games, and what I like about Cultist Simulator is that it allows Alexis’s words to flourish because we distill it down. You have a very simple board, and you have very bright iconic images with one or two words beneath them. If you click them you get a little flavour text that tells you all about it. You can then dive deeper into that, but you’re never overwhelmed. You feel empowered in way you perhaps didn’t in Fallen London or Sunless Sea. I think it makes it accessible even though it’s a complexly written prose game.”

That accessibility was a core goal for Kennedy, who was aware that Cultist Simulator’s tone and construction might be daunting for the uninitiated.

“One of the design constraints that I applied is that I wanted there to be about 25% as much text in the game, and about 25% as much text on screen at any given point, as there is in Fallen London and Sunless Sea,” he says.

“This is for a three reasons: one is that I think I’m better at little piquant chunks of text. Secondly, over the years in Fallen London and Sunless Sea there was an inflation effect. You start with a sentence, but you always want to give the player enough value, so it goes up to two sentences, then three. The third reason was the practical one of wanting to localise the game. It’s just not practical to localise Fallen London unless its part of some bezerk billionaire’s vanity project. Not only because it’s something like two million words, but because there’s new text added all the time, and you need a pipeline to localise it. Cultist Simulator is about 50,000 words, which is much easier.”

This flexibility in design is just one of the reasons Kennedy decided to leave Failbetter and set up Weather Factory, even if commercial success is far from assured.

”As a studio, what I wanted to do was little experiments without keeping a dozen people fed,” Kennedy admits. “From the point of view of our preferences and intentions – and from the point of view of the savage economic reality of being an indie developer in an industry where 6,500 new games are released every millisecond – keeping our productions costs low and our options open is really valuable.”

Although Cultist Simulator was successfully crowdfunded, Humble came on board as a publisher in March, 2018.

“We had enough money to self-publish the game, but we set up Weather Factory to be deliberately experimental, and one of the things neither of us has any experience of is being published,” says Bevan. “We wanted to have that experience, especially if we move onto bigger projects in the future. We also take our ethics very seriously, and Humble have reputation for being an ethical, indie focused publisher. They’re really hands off in a good way. They don’t come with preconceptions of what we should be.”

One of Cultist Simulator’s many accomplishments is in how it generates a constant sense of looming dread yet still gives the player enough space to think, consider, and experiment. And although the game can be paused at any time, a clock is often ticking.

“This provokes two things,” says Kennedy. ”One is anxiety because something is ticking down. You want something ticking down because of that basic awareness of the fundamental transience of all human existence. And the other thing is anticipation. I wanted this sense of unpeeling dread. A sense that you want to get at something below the world, but you know it’s bad for you.”

“It’s not panic that we’re going for,” adds Bevan, “but we do want to keep the pressure on.“

“And given the subject matter, we’ve been surprised by how contemplative an experience people have found playing it,” Kennedy says.

With multiple verbs and timers in play at any one time, the game can quickly descend into an exercise in keeping multiple plates spinning. The key to managing these variables was in keeping each component as simple as possible.

“One of the most important lessons I learned about balance is that when you’re designing a complex system like a game, there’s a near infinite number of knobs you can twiddle,” Kennedy explains. “But actually, when you’re setting up your system, you don’t really want to twiddle more than a couple. Partly because its more effort to change them, but also because if you change everything all over the place, it’s very hard to determine the whole outcome.”

It’s a lesson Kennedy says would have been useful earlier in his development career.

“The important concomitant of this – and one I wish I’d learned with Fallen London – is that it means you can set most of the dials to numbers whose chief significance is that they are easy to remember. So, most of the timers in the game are just 60 or 30 seconds. In the earliest version of the game I had lots of formulae around how long the timers were, but in the end I realised that if was going to have to balance it, I didn’t want to go in there and change all those numbers. It was easier to say ‘it takes a specific amount of time’ or ‘it’s quick and it takes less time.’”

The result is a satisfying loop of choice and consequence in which something happens every ten to fifteen seconds. It’s a pace that Kennedy feels offers a high, but manageable, level of player engagement.

The game’s sense of distance, of events occurring just out of sight, were also a factor in the game’s presentation.

“You actually can’t move the camera beyond the edge of the table, it will scale to the screen resolution,” Kennedy says.  “If you could, you would start thinking about the physical reality of the table, which is immediately problematic. It means you interpose a conceptual barrier between what’s happening on the table and the rest of the world, and you start thinking, ‘oh there’s a table with some cards on it.’”

So what could be considered an arbitrary restriction actually helps Cultist Simulator conjure the necessary unease and anxiety.

“You can’t throw the camera around so you have to do something that invites patience in the player. You want negative space. And that is the essence of dread,” Kennedy says. ”That aligns really well with text being used, because text is a naturally anathemic form. You’re always inviting people to guess at what’s in the gaps, and if your game is about that, and if it’s game where the aesthetic is darkness with spots of bright colour, then all those things come together.”

For Kennedy theres is an evident pleasure in illuminating these dark corners, and far from being peddling misery, there is a cathartic outcome to such endeavours.

“The thing about dread and anxiety is that they give you time to deal with it, which I think is the Leonard Cohen attitude to life that I quite enjoy.”

Cultist Simulator is out now on PC – with a 10% discount – via the Humble Store, and Steam.

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